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Murray-Darling Basin Plan
26/10/2015
Social, economic and environmental impacts of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on regional communities

PAGE, Mrs Karen Lynne, President, Menindee Regional Tourist Association Inc.

CHAIR: I now welcome a representative of the Menindee Regional Tourist Association, Mrs Karen Page. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mrs Page : I am also Chair of the Menindee Community Water Consultative Group.

CHAIR: Thank you for appearing today. I invite you to make a brief opening statement, should you wish to do so.

Mrs Page : I would like the committee to understand our situation, as a small community that relies on the river. In Menindee, Wilcannia and Pooncarie, we rely on the river and the lakes to bring tourists to our region. Our businesses rely on these tourists, and sadly they are not coming, because of the state of the river and the lakes. Our communities are being destroyed. It is destroying the Indigenous culture of our region.

Our Indigenous tribe is the Barkindji tribe. Those are your river people. They have been on, and relying on, our lakes and river for thousands of years before white man came and before the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was put into place. At the moment, the morale of our Indigenous communities is at its lowest. They do not understand the state of the water and the contaminants that are now in the river and the water that they usually rely on. As I said, it is their history and their cultural heritage.

The river and the lakes at the moment are destroying our history of our early explorers, like Major Mitchell, back in the 1830s, and Burke and Wills, in the 1860s. Burke and Wills had their longest stay in Menindee, because there was water there, before they moved on. We rely on people coming out because of this history, and it is not there. It is gone. We have a Burke and Wills camp site—they did not stay there, they stayed at the pub—where their crew stayed for those six months. If you go up there and have a look at it today, it is a sorry sight indeed.

It is destroying the communities and our local environment. After aerial views and studies of our wetlands, Menindee Lakes was classed in the top four most important wetlands systems for waterbirds in Australia. That is extremely important; that has been destroyed. We have had over 200 species of birds recognised and recorded out at Menindee. If you go up there today, you will see dead birds from drinking the water and trying to rely on that water up there in Menindee.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, as it is today, does not manage the environmental flows fairly, as I have heard before. They are not managed fairly for the communities along the river. I would like to record that our lakes up at Menindee are not man-made lakes: they are a natural lake system. The only man-made thing in those lakes up at Menindee is the infrastructure that has been put in. After a flood, those lakes hold close to 1,800 gigalitres. The two bottom lakes, which are Lake Menindee and Lake Cawndilla, hold the majority of our water: about 600 gigalitres each. As it stands at the moment, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has access to 1,200 gigalitres of the water that is in the lakes after a flood. Back in 2013-14, they requested water from the lakes, because the lakes were full, but the Murray was also full, so they requested lakes for environmental flows—

Senator WILLIAMS: Who are they?

Mrs Page : The Murray-Darling Basin Authority. They requested from the New South Wales authorities for water to be sent down in 2013. That water was to be sent down for a certain fish spawning, down in the Lower Murray, and also, because the Murray was running pretty well full, they wanted a push behind that water, and they wanted to spread the water out over the plains for some frogs. My concern is that they are destroying our environment here. They are not leaving enough water here. Once they get down to the 480 gig point, for it to go back to New South Wales' control, we are not left with enough water, because in that 480 gig level is 25 per cent of irretrievable water. So we are not actually being left with 480 gigs of accessible water to secure our storage for Menindee, Broken Hill and the Lower Darling. If we could have the plan changed and the agreement with the New South Wales authorities and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to have that trigger point of 480 gigs calculated over water only stored in the top two lakes. We have Lake Wetherell, behind the main weir, which can hold just under 300 gigs and we have got Lake Pamamaroo, which is right next door and holds 280 gigs. I have spoken to DPI—Gavin Hanlon—and they said that works could be done in Pamamaroo to help with the secure storage and be able to have that 480 gigs stored in the top two lakes. That would last for years—for a secure supply—for Broken Hill. You would not have to have a pipeline put in from Jamestown.

I did hear a question asked about the difference with the pipeline from Wentworth and Jamestown. The pipeline from Wentworth will be untreated water. The pipeline from Jamestown will be treated water. That is the difference with the two pipelines for Broken Hill. My concern is about Menindee and the people up there. We have 100 households, and I am one of them, that rely on the river—that pump directly from the river. You will see in my submission that I did lobby the state government for treated water to be trucked to these residents, because the water in the river is so bad, which I was successful in getting done. The problem is our tanks are contaminated with the water that has come out of the rivers, so we cannot use that, other than for having a shower and whatnot.

The people are getting sick. Our Indigenous community does not understand that they cannot continue to pump water from the river. They can see water there and they will continue to pump water from the river. We need those flows that have been stopped from upstream to be allowed to come down in the future to replenish the supply of the 480 gigs, once it is controlled in the top two lakes. When I was in Canberra I had a meeting with David Dreverman and I made that statement to David. I said to him, 'I have grown up on these lakes and I have never, ever seen them like they are now—even Lake Menindee.' We have seen Lake Menindee dry twice now, since 2000. I was born in the early 50s, and now and back then were the only two times I have seen it dry. His answer to me was, 'The reason you are seeing it dry now, and you did not see it dry when you were a child, was that you used to have flows come down.' We are not getting those flows down now. We are not dry because of drought. We are dry because of over extraction from the river and mismanagement of the flows.

Senator MADIGAN: I note in your submission to the committee that you speak about people pumping from the river and the fact that, as you said before, you got water delivered. I am concerned by what you have said about emerging health problems. You have said here that you have just had a second case of motor neurone disease diagnosed in Menindee.

Mrs Page : Unfortunately that person has passed away since I put the submission in.

Senator MADIGAN: Has there been any further work by state or federal health departments on this issue?

Mrs Page : I had a letter from Jillian Skinner confirming that they have found a link between motor neurone disease and blue-green algae, but the studies are still being done. Everybody has to be careful, but it is not just the motor neurone disease—it is the stomach problems and skin problems and gastro that is occurring—that type of thing.

Senator MADIGAN: Has your community had any interaction with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority on these issues?

Mrs Page : The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has flown me to Canberra twice to do a presentation to them. As they have made it quite clear to me, they are not—once that 1,200 gigs is taken and the river is drawn down to the 480 gigs, they have no access to any water whatsoever from Menindee. It is all New South Wales control once it gets back to that 480 gigs. So it is the New South Wales authorities that I have been talking to about the health problems and things like that. A lot of things go on. You get listened to, but that is as far as it goes.

Senator MADIGAN: So the Murray-Darling Basin Authority handballs the health issue to the New South Wales authorities?

Mrs Page : No. The New South Wales authorities and our local authorities do the testing on the water and the health concerns.

Senator MADIGAN: Are they addressing those concerns?

Mrs Page : Yes. They are doing regular tests on the water and we get warnings on when not to use the water. At the moment we are not use the water for any human consumption whatsoever. We should not be swimming in the water that is there at the moment either. Our stock cannot drink the water at the moment either.

Senator MADIGAN: In 2015 the community of Menindee cannot drink the water, bathe in the water or use the water at all?

Mrs Page : That is correct.

CHAIR: And not give it to stock, either?

Mrs Page : No.

Senator LEYONHJELM: Is this because of blue green-algae contamination?

Mrs Page : This is because of the contaminants in the water and the state of the water. The water in Menindee is a soupy lime green. I did hear you say on the radio this morning that you had not visited up there, and I would like to invite you all to come up and have a look at it up there. It is not just a dry lake; it is also what has been left behind for the community to have access to.

CHAIR: That is quite serious.

Mrs Page : It is, extremely.

CHAIR: At the end of the day, the priority in the Water Act is for high security water. High security water is defined as water for human consumption, stock and permanent plantings. I am sure you know that quite well. In other words, that condition is not being satisfied.

Mrs Page : We have a bore that is just coming into place in Menindee, which Essential Water are controlling. That is going to supply the people that live in the town that have access to mains water. But, as I said before, we have 100 families that are not on town water supply, who rely on the river. Now we are going to have the Sunset Strip residents out there that are going to have to have water carted to them as well. We have permanent residents that live out there.

I have presented impact statements to each of the members of the committee from our businesses in town. The tourism and our Barkindji elders have put in an impact statement, and some of the property owners along the river that rely on the river for their stock and everything as well. So you all have impact statements there from different areas of the community.

CHAIR: You mentioned that you have been successful in having water delivered to some people, but some of them could not use it because their tanks were contaminated. What was the issue there?

Mrs Page : You cannot drink it. It needs to be boiled before it is used.

CHAIR: Is this the water that was delivered?

Mrs Page : Yes. The water has been treated. It is from the treatment plant in Menindee, but once it goes into your tank which has had that contaminated water in it, it cannot be used for human consumption. It needs to be boiled. We are starting to itch now from showering in it.

CHAIR: I do not quite understand the point here. I am not sure it is quite on our terms of reference. Blue green algae dies very quickly when it is dry, so presumably you would be able to empty the tanks, dry them out and put the fresh water in. That would be fine, wouldn't it?

Mrs Page : Our tanks are drained by the time we get the water delivered, anyhow, because we cannot get any unless our tank is empty. We are putting chlorine and alum into our tanks, but we have been advised by Essential Water to boil that water and not to use it for human consumption. So that is what we are doing.

CHAIR: That is interesting. I cannot imagine why that would be. I take your word for it.

Senator WILLIAMS: I am very concerned when you say, 'I fear the death of the lakes as we know them, because the irrigation lobby are so influential.' Were they your words in the extra submission?

Mrs Page : No, they are not my words. They are from one of the impact statements.

Senator WILLIAMS: You say:

After the 2012 flood all our lakes were full, 15 months later they were all but dry. The start of this disaster.

Mrs Page : Those are my words.

Senator WILLIAMS: What happened in 15 months to get them so devastatingly low in levels? Were they environmental flows? Were they irrigators? What was the call to take the lakes from full to near empty in 15 months?

Mrs Page : Environmental flows that were requested by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority for the Lower Darling and Lower Murray.

Senator WILLIAMS: Do those flows going out of the lakes damage the banks of the river below the lakes from having high flows?

Mrs Page : It has not damaged the river from having high flows. Our river is more damaged by having low flows.

Senator WILLIAMS: I was referring to soil erosion. The previous witness was saying that in the Murrumbidgee they are letting high flows out and having the river fluctuating metres is causing damage to the banks.

Mrs Page : Our river does not go up and down like that. When it is high, it is not high for long enough to impact on the top of the banks. I live between the main weir and weir 32, so I still have water in front of my place at the moment. We have a problem—

Senator WILLIAMS: We are getting stuck for time, Mrs Page. If you were running the whole show, what would you do to protect the river, the lakes, and the water supply for Broken Hill?

Mrs Page : If I had the say—

Senator WILLIAMS: Yes, you are the boss. Imagine we made you the boss for one day: what would you do?

Mrs Page : I would love to be the boss. If I were boss I would have the 480-gig secure water supply stored in the top two lakes with accessible water, and I would have some small to medium flows come down the river between floods to replenish that supply. Then there would be no need for pipelines from the Murray or from Jamestown—they are both from the Murray—but we would need our pipeline from Menindee to Broken Hill to be upgraded.

Senator WILLIAMS: Would that please the people of Menindee, the people of Broken Hill, with the environments in both regions et cetera? Would it be a win-win to store those 480-odd gigs in those top two lakes?

Mrs Page : That would be a win-win for our region, which includes Broken Hill, Menindee, Pooncarie and the lower Darling and Murray, and it would be a win-win for upstream as well.

Senator McALLISTER: Could you tell me a little about your analysis of the problem? Tell me if I have got this wrong, but it sounded to me that if we were to describe the problem, No. 1 is that there is an evaporative problem in the Menindee Lake system and that some of that could be addressed by improving infrastructure works that would allow water to be held in the top two lakes; No. 2 is that there is a problem with upstream extractions impacting on the volume of water flowing down into the lower Darling and into the Menindee Lake system; and No. 3: in your opening remarks you expressed a frustration about the relative environmental priorities between maintaining the Menindee system and maintaining some of the wetlands downstream. Is that broadly the problem as you describe it?

Mrs Page : That is correct.

Senator McALLISTER: And it has lots of consequences around water quality and amenity and human health and all of those things.

Mrs Page : Yes.

Senator McALLISTER: The way that this is supposed to be resolved—and this precedes the Basin Plan—is that that is meant to be resolved in a water sharing plan. There is a water sharing plan from 2004 that is supposed to set out the share of upstream and downstream users. It was due for extension or replacement by July 2015; I cannot tell from the website, but that does not seem to have happened. Have you been involved in any communications with the New South Wales government about that water sharing plan?

Mrs Page : I have not.

Senator McALLISTER: As I mentioned to an earlier witness, the Basin Plan seeks to line up all of the different state-based approaches to water sharing plans and to get a consistent approach in place by the end of 2019. It is intended that there will be a New South Wales-Murray-Lower Darling plan that commences in July 2019. Has there been any discussion with the New South Wales government about that?

Mrs Page : I have not had discussion with the New South Wales government, but I have had discussion with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in regard to that. The last trip to Canberra was to deliver a presentation to the Northern Basin Advisory Committee; they are the ones who are overseeing these changes to the plan for 2019 for it to come into place. I do have concerns about that. As you said earlier, you have got the upper rivers and you have the lower systems, but we are the poor buggers in the middle, and we are forgotten.

CHAIR: Can I just interrupt there: are you included in the Northern Basin review?

Mrs Page : No. The Northern Basin Advisory Committee is supposed to go from right up the top right down to Menindee, but it does not actually include Menindee. Then you have got the lower community consultative basin group that are down around Wentworth and Merbein and beyond down to the Coorong, and they basically report on what is going on down there. As I just said, we are in the middle. The communities upstream talk about water being let down to Menindee to evaporate. The communities downstream see it as, 'If there is any water coming to Menindee we better get that because it will evaporate.' Well, it will evaporate upstream and it will evaporate downstream as well—especially Lake Victoria down in South Australia, which is basically the same size as Lake Menindee, but it evaporates at twice the rate as Lake Menindee. As I said earlier, my sister has a house on Lake Menindee and has had it there for 45 years. During that time, the only time I have seen Lake Menindee dry is since 2000. Before that it always had water in it.

CHAIR: What is your understanding of the impact of what occurs in the northern basin on the inflows into the lakes here?

Mrs Page : When I was in Canberra it was explained to me that we are not getting the inflows now because of the size of the storages upstream. We did not have the storages upstream that we have today, and this is why we are not getting the flows down. Where we used to see a small to medium flood every three to five years, we are not getting anything now unless we get a big flood every 10 years. For example, in 2010, which was basically between a medium and large flow down, the New South Wales authorities elected—although we had dry Menindee Lakes and Lake Cowandilla—to put that water straight down the river, and they flooded us all along the river. We rung them and said, 'Look, you have a dry lake there and yet you are flooding us out. Why are you doing this?' The answer to us was: 'Because we can.' What I have learned since then is that it was not a big enough flow to put enough water in Menindee Lakes for them to then extract it out to go downstream. So instead of putting it in where they could get access to it, as I said before with the water that is irretrievable, they pushed it all straight down.

CHAIR: Who did this?

Mrs Page : The New South Wales authority.

CHAIR: Do they have control over it whether it goes into Menindee Lakes or—

Mrs Page : Yes.

CHAIR: They were not pinching it from someone else?

Mrs Page : No. They are the ones who have the authority. Until the water in Menindee Lakes reaches 600 gigs the Murray-Darling Basin Authority have no access to any of the water whatsoever.

Senator McALLISTER: Is it your contention that, in that last example you spoke of, the New South Wales government chose not to put it into the lake?

Mrs Page : Yes, that is right.

Senator McALLISTER: For any reason in particular?

Mrs Page : Well, then it would have gone over to Murray-Darling Basin Authority control and they would have had access to any water that was over 600 gigs. They have access to that water that is over 600 gigs. It could have come out from behind the main weir, and we would have been left with water just to evaporate where they could not get access to it.

Senator McALLISTER: Do you feel it was an instance of gaming the system?

Mrs Page : Yes.

Senator McALLISTER: In terms of two jurisdictions seeking to exert influence.

Mrs Page : I have been told lately that with some of the studies they are doing now the New South Wales authorities are saying that they will not put water into Lake Menindee unless there is a minimum of a six-week flow coming past Wilcannia of six gigs. So they will not put water in there. At the moment they are doing some work up behind the main weir. It is called Three Mile Creek. They have lowered the bank there so, when the water that is flowing into Lake Wetherell at the moment—which is just in the river channel of Lake Wetherell, not in the full lake—gets up to a certain height, it will spill over and out on to the Talyawalka flood plain, which then meets the river again below Menindee. That is where they have put the bores. They have bores out in Lake Menindee. I can answer the question that was asked by the panel earlier about how long those bores will last. The bores on Lake Menindee are expected to last for two years. Once they use the water from those bores, once they are dry—and it will take many years to get water back in there, it being a dry lake—then they are going to go over to the bores that are down on Talyawalka. That is about 20 kilometres downstream from Menindee. Once the water comes up with a little inflow, it will spill over where they have lowered the levee bank, behind the main weir, and it will go down the Talyawalka to where these bores are, down beyond Menindee.

Senator McALLISTER: What is the source of your information that the purpose of enabling that overflow is bore replenishment?

Mrs Page : It is common knowledge, and it is from the department that has done the work there. It is still being done today; they are still working on it today.

Senator McALLISTER: For that purpose?

Mrs Page : If you live in the area, you can see that that water can only go down, and, once it spills over there, it can only go down to where those bores are, and it meets back into the river below—weir 32. That is the only place that water can go, once it spills over.

Senator McALLISTER: It is not for the purposes of vegetation management or any of those things, because there are vegetation objectives for the Darling?

Mrs Page : There is only the common out there.

CHAIR: There is an intriguing statement in your submission, in which you said:

The water was taken from one envirinment, to boost another envirinment, to me this was a criminal act, what makes one environment more important than another, one is boosted while another is left to die.

Are you referring to human environments or natural environments in that statement?

Mrs Page : I am talking about the natural environment. I spoke earlier about the water being taken to push the water out to sea and to push it out over the flood plains for the frogs and everything down below river, while we are sitting now having dead birds, dead fish and stale water. Our environment has died; it has been killed. It has been done by man.

CHAIR: Yes, I accept that. To what extent do you think the current environmental degradation where you are referring to is permanent? The reason I ask is this area of the world has always had 'droughts and flooding rains'. There have been plenty of instances previously where there has been a lack of water, fish have died, birds have failed to breed and those sorts of things. Is this different?

Mrs Page : It is different. We have been a land of 'droughts and flooding rains'. As I said before, our Indigenous ancestors lived out on Lake Menindee, where it is dry now. The Barkindji tribe was a parent tribe for about six other tribes who used to come and stay on those lakes out there at Lake Menindee in the dry times. That is why we have significant fossils, bones and everything like that out there around Lake Menindee. The early explorers stayed up at Menindee because there was water there. The reason it is different nowadays is we are not getting the water down as regularly as we used to. Back in our ancestors' days, they used to have a dry period for two to three years. Now we are having dry periods of 10 to 12 years. That is a huge difference for the environment.

CHAIR: How many years did it use to be, did you say?

Mrs Page : If you have a look at the graphs—and I do not think I put a graph in from the New South Wales DPI Water—they had a graph going right back to the 1930s, with the small to medium flows that used to come down past Wilcannia into Menindee, and they were every two to three years. Now we have spanned out to a minimum of 10 years.

Senator DAY: I have just one last question. You talked about water from one environment to another, and you made a comment about it going out to sea. You are obviously talking about the Murray mouth.

Mrs Page : I am talking about the Murray mouth, yes. In September 2013 I was down at Goolwa with my husband, at a water conference, and we were taken out onto the water, and it was 27 foot deep going out. Four kilometres out to sea there was fresh water going out to sea.

Senator DAY: Was that in 2013?

Mrs Page : September 2013. They had the conference down at Goolwa.

CHAIR: Where was it 27 feet?

Mrs Page : It was 27 feet at the mouth.

CHAIR: At the mouth?

Mrs Page : Yes.

CHAIR: And it was flowing out to sea at that time?

Mrs Page : It was flowing out to sea.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mrs Page.

Mrs Page : You are very welcome. I hope I helped you.